I found interesting information on the site galapagospacificdiving.com, I contacted the agency and the experience was very pleasant, punctual departures, excellent weather accompanied us and we could see many animals, especially the work of the dive master was great, it was noted much responsibility in handling and safety equipment, I think we got a very good service for our money, but it is best to have the unique experience of diving in the Galapagos.
The Charles Darwin Research Centre was set up in 1960 in order to promote research, conservation, and education in the archipelago. A visit here is included in just about every cruise, and it was the first place we visited on Santa Cruz, having transferred directly to the centre’s own jetty in the pangas straight after breakfast.
Fabian gave us a tour of the different pens used for the successful Giant tortoise breeding programme for which the centre is best known. We saw a group of male tortoises in one, females in another, and elsewhere met “Super Diego”, considered to be the centre’s most sexually active male (and therefore very useful to the breeding programme!) The latter is a Saddleback Tortoise, and Fabian pointed out how his shell shape differs from that of his cousins – a feature that demonstrates admirably Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the larger islands, such as here on Santa Cruz, the Giant Tortoises thrive in the highlands where there is plentiful ground vegetation. Here the domed shell is the norm. But on some of the smaller islands, where most vegetation is above ground and harder to reach, the tortoises have evolved to have this cut-away area of their shell, behind their heads, which enables them to stretch upwards to reach food.
As with all such places, the centre offers you a chance to get close to wildlife. However, after five days visiting the islands it was clear to us that, given how comfortable the animals and birds are around their human visitors, “getting close” is much less of a bonus here than elsewhere! But we did learn a lot about the Giant Tortoises, and I was also able to get a nice little video of one on the move.
One inhabitant we did not see however was Lonesome George, arguably at one time the most famous tortoise in the world. Sadly he had died a few months before our visit, in June 2012.
After seeing the adult tortoises we went on to visit the rearing house, where hatchlings are cared for, and the adaptation centre, where young tortoises are gradually accustomed to the conditions they will find on release to their home islands, which happens at about four years of age. Nearly 2,000 young tortoises have been released so far!
Here our tour with Fabian ended and we all went our separate ways, free to explore on our own. Chris and I walked back through the grounds, stopping to look at the various plants – the centre also maintains a native plant garden of species endemic to the Santa Cruz arid and coastal zones. We watched a Cactus Finch at close quarters in one of the Opuntias and then had a brief look inside the Van Straelen Exhibition Centre which has displays about the Galápagos Islands and the work of the Research Station. Near here we met up with another from our group, Ian, and decided to walk with him into Puerto Ayora
Puerto Ayora is situated on Academy Bay, on the south coast of Santa Cruz, and is the most populous town in the Galápagos Islands, with over 12,000 inhabitants. When we walked into town from the Charles Darwin Research Centre it was the first time for five days that we had walked on pavements, or been among more than twenty other people! But you could hardly call this a large town – it just felt that way after our recent experiences. From a visitor’s perspective it consist mainly of a single long street running parallel to the sea, lined with small shops, bars and restaurants, and a few hotels. The Research Station is a short walk to the east, and the harbour is at the west end of town. If you are on a Galápagos cruise a visit here provides an opportunity to shop for souvenirs, pick up emails and VT messages, and maybe to eat and drink on dry land for a change. If you don’t want to cruise the islands but would prefer a land-based holiday, there are a number of hotels here to suit most budgets, and day trips can be arranged to the nearer islands.
But we of course were on a cruise, so we only spent a few hours in town. It was enough to enjoy a very good coffee (at the centrally-located Il Giardino), buy a couple of small souvenirs and postcards, and to take some photos of the activity at the lively fish market in the middle of town – activity that was at least as attractive to the local pelicans and Galápagos sea lions as it was to us!
At the end of our morning in Puerto Ayora (which I have described in more detail on a separate page) the pangas picked us up at the pier in the harbour to go back to the Angelito for lunch, and returned us to the same spot for our visit to the highlands of Santa Cruz.
On the afternoon of our day on Santa Cruz we took the pangas across the small bay to the harbour pier and from there boarded a small bus, driven by one of the Angelito’s owners, for our journey into the highlands. It was great to have this unexpected opportunity to pass on our appreciation of the boat and crew to one of the owners. Until recently one of them apparently skippered the boat for every cruise, but they are getting on in age now and have wisely decided to employ a captain, so we hadn’t anticipated meeting either of them.
The bus drove through the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, giving us a brief glimpse of everyday life in this most remote of towns. As we left the town the road started to climb and we could soon see for ourselves how the vegetation of the arid and humid zones differed. The higher we went the more lush the greens, and we saw lots of pockets of cultivation – coffee, maize and fruit-bearing trees such as banana and papaya. There were cattle in some fields, and white cattle egrets.
We arrived at our destination, a reserve where the Giant tortoises are protected and allowed to live in peace in the wild – but not before already seeing a few in nearby fields and passing one right on the road! At the reserve there was a small demonstration area, where Fabian gave us a talk about these amazing creatures. There was an empty shell there, from a long-deceased tortoise, and some of us took the chance to climb inside and “play tortoise” – a silly, fun exercise, but one that gave us a good sense of just how huge these animals are. Oh, and I found a perch on the top, as you can see in photo four!
From here we went for a walk through part of the reserve. We saw quite a few tortoises on our route, including one enjoying a mud bath and several munching on grass and leaves. One came straight towards a small group of us, and we had to step aside and let him pass – he was clearly the boss and nothing was going to stop him reaching his destination. Sharing a narrow path with one of these enormous reptiles really does give you a sense of their size and strength!
We also saw a variety of birds on our walk – a Smooth-Billed Ani, White-Cheeked Pintail Duck and Yellow Warbler among others. The reserve has a small but densely stocked souvenir shop which we checked out after our walk – Chris and I just bought a postcard (50c) while some of the others got a t-shirt or hat, at what seemed to me to be reasonable prices. There is also a little café / bar, where we got a drink each (Sprite and moccachino), and sat with the others from our party who’d variously opted for coffees, beer, soft drinks and snacks such as empanadas. Four of the group had left that morning, and a new passenger had joined the group here, so it was a good opportunity to get to know Eli from Israel and welcome him to our happy band!
But soon it was time to leave as we wanted to visit some lava tubes on the way back to the Angelito.
A short drive from the Giant Tortoise reserve is one of a number of lava tunnels that can be found here in the highlands of Santa Cruz. These tunnels or tubes are formed when the exterior portion of a pahoehoe lava flow cools and hardens while the hotter interior lava continues to flow. Eventually the lava flow diminishes and there is not enough lava left to fill the tube, which is left hollow as a result. We had seen very small tubes on Santiago, but here on Santa Cruz some of them are large enough to enter. This particular one is accessed down a short flight of rocky steps, with a slightly rickety handrail. These lead you to the tunnel’s entrance, which is actually in the middle of it, as it has in the past collapsed at this point leaving one half exposed and easy to walk into, and the other half more or less buried in rubble (see photo four). More steps took us down to the bottom of the tunnel (photo three), which at this point was fairly smooth and easy to walk on. It even had electric lighting! If you didn’t know otherwise you would think that this were a man-mad tunnel, maybe dug as part of a mine or underground transport system. But no – this was all created by the power of volcanic activity.
After about 100 metres of walking we came to a point where the tunnel roof has crumbled in places and made the going a little harder. Eventually that roof becomes so low that it is necessary to crawl. We had the option at this point of continuing with Fabian or returning to the minibus. About five or six of us, me included, chose the latter – there was no way with a dodgy knee that I felt like crawling on stony ground! But Chris and some of the others opted to finish the walk through the tunnel, though he later told me that apart from the satisfaction of having done it I hadn’t missed much. In the event they had not so much crawled, as the ground was not only stony but also wet in places, but rather had gone on hands and feet, their backs almost scraping the roof!
Meanwhile I and my companions took a leisurely walk back through the tunnel, stopping to take more photos as we did so. Once we were in the minibus we drove the sort distance to meet the others, who had already emerged from the tunnel and were waiting by the side of the road. I confess I was relieved to see them, as it had occurred to me that if the tunnel had collapsed in the past it could do so again! But there had been no mishaps, and we all settled down in the minibus to return to Puerto Ayora and to the Angelito.
This was our last visit on Santa Cruz on this day, but we were able to see another side of the island on our final morning when we took a short panga ride in Black Turtle Cove.
On the final day of our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito we were again moored off Santa Cruz, this time in the channel to the north of the island that separates it from Baltra where the airport is situated. With only a few more hours left, we were all up early for a pre-breakfast final visit – a panga ride in Black Turtle Cove. This is a beautiful inlet surrounded by mangrove trees (three species – red, white and black). No landings are allowed here, and boats have to turn off their engines. The early morning light was lovely as Fabian steered us to a great spot where a small lagoon emptied into the cove. He grabbed a mangrove branch hanging out over the water to steady the panga, and we waited. We were rewarded by the sight of a succession of fish and other wildlife exiting the lagoon – several White-tipped Reef Sharks, Sea turtles and a couple of Spotted Eagle Rays. It was so tranquil there, just drifting slightly and watching these various creatures pass right by, or even underneath, our panga.
After a while though we had to leave, and headed back to the Angelito for breakfast. On the way we saw a number of birds – a Lava Heron, Brown Noddies, several pelicans and a Blue-footed Booby.
This is a rather different environment from any we had seen elsewhere in the archipelago and it was a special, peaceful spot in which to spend the last hour or so of a very enjoyable week aboard the Angelito.
This is my last tip about Santa Cruz. Click here to return to my intro page.
Charles Darwin Research Station is situated in the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, at the east end of Avenida Charles Darwin. It was established in 1964 and it is the headquarters of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Here more than 100 scientists, students and volunteers are working with research and conservation projects to protect the Galapagos ecosystem and endangered species.
At Charles Darwin Research Station there is a museum and information centre where you can learn much about the wildlife and ecology of the Galapagos Islands. There is a breeding centre and a house where baby-tortoises are incubated. The young tortoises are taken care of until they are old enough to be taken to their home islands and natural habitat. In the Galapagos Islands there are 11 different subspecies of the Giant Tortoise, and at Charles Darwin Research Station you can see several of them. The most famous tortoise here is Lonesome George. He is the only surviving Tortoise of the subspecies from Isla Pinta. Many attempts have been made to mate him with closely related females, but without success.
There are several enclosures with adult Giant Tortoises and in one of them you can go down to come close to the tortoises. There are also enclosures with Land Iguanas.
I visited Charles Darwin Research Station on the first day of the Cruise with M/S Cachalote, so we got a very good guided walk around the area. However, it is easy to visit on your own. It is only a 15 minutes walk from central Puerto Ayora and around the Research Station there are several trails and information boards. It is free to visit.
Update June 2012: Lonesome George died on the 24th of June 2012. He was found dead in the morning by his caretaker and it is believed that he died because his heart stopped and because of old age. Lonesome George was between 90 -107 years.
The vegetation in the highlands is very different to the coast. It is wetter, with green pastures and forests. There are many places of interest to visit in the Santa Cruz Highlands, like the Lava Tunnels, Los Gemelos, Cerro Crocker and El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
In Santa Cruz Highlands I have only visited Hacienda Mariposa, a cattle farm owned by Steve Divine. It is situated between Bellavista and Santa Rosa, near El Chato Tortoise Reserve. In the green pastures of Hacienda Mariposa you can see Giant Tortoises in the wild. It is only during the dry season that the tortoises are present though, because during the wet season, when it is breeding season, the tortoises move the arid zone.
It was on the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, before we even went to the boat, that we visited the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz and Hacienda Mariposa.
Before we started our walk around the farm to look for tortoises we heard that there was a Barn Owl in a small shed by the house. We were allowed to go inside one at a time if we were very quiet, and we were not allowed to take photos using flash. In a corner on the floor, under a chair, there was a chick, all covered in white down. It made a loud hissing sound “shrreee”. While we went inside the shed one by one, one of the women in the group had gone to the bathroom. She was all excited when she came back and told us there had been an owl in the bathroom too. Welcome to the Galapagos!
We went for a short walk to look for Giant Tortoises and luckily we saw one, a juvenile, as it wasn’t that big. Then we went back to the farm and got some juice to drink and took photos of the shell from a very big tortoise. Besides the Barn Owl and its chick we saw Cattle Egrets, Smooth-billed Anis, a Yellow Warbler and a Darwin Finch during our visit. I don’t know which Darwin Finch it was as it was the first one I saw, the photo is very dark and I have only written Darwin Finch in my notebook. When we left the farm we saw a Short-eared Owl sitting on a pole next to the road. That was good luck! Now we had seen both species of owls that occur on the Galapagos Islands even before we had got to the boat.
After breakfast on the 6th day of the cruise with Cachalote we visited Cerro Dragon on Isla Santa Cruz. The sun was shining and it was a lovely day. As we approached the landing point with the panga we saw some Blue-footed Boobies standing on the rocks. It was a dry landing, and then we walked the short path to the beach, a lovely white sandy beach. Among the lava rocks on the beach there were several tidal pools where we saw Yellow-tailed Damsel fish, Lizardfish, Mullets and small hermit crabs.
From the beach there is a 1.6km long trail going past two saline lagoons and then up on a small hill with good views, before it turns and goes back to the beach. There is a big chance that you will see several kinds of birds by the lagoons. We saw a Black-necked Stilt, a Whimbrel White-cheeked Pintails and Semi Palmated Plovers, but also Marine Iguanas.
Along the path up the hill we saw several Land Iguanas. In the 1970s-1980s all Land Iguanas at Cerro Dragón were moved to the nearby Venice Islet. This was made to protect them from introduced animals like dogs, cats and goats. Since then many efforts have been done to remove the introduced animals and now there is at least no dogs in the area, so the Land Iguanas have been returned to their natural habitat.
The trail passes through different vegetation zones. Close to the beach and lagoons you will see Salt Bushes, Leather Leaf and Carpet-weed. Further along the trail you will be surrounded by Palo Santo trees and Opuntia Cacti. We also saw Galapagos Cotton. In the Galapagos Cotton bushes we saw Flightless Grasshoppers.
Before going to the airport on the last day of the cruise with Cachalote we visited Black Turtle Cove very early in the morning, even before breakfast. The sun was just rising and the light was beautiful . It was a very calm and peaceful morning.
Black Turtle Cove is a shallow inlet surrounded by mangrove vegetation, situated on the north coast of Isla Santa Cruz. There is no landing site and it is only visited with a panga (dinghy). When we arrived into the cove we saw lots of Cattle Egrets sitting in the mangroves and as we came closer they all took off. It was a lovely thing to see. The Cattle Egrets come down from the highlands to spend the night at Black Turtle Cove, where it is warmer during the night than in the highlands. We also saw many pelicans and smaller birds following the pelicans in case it would drop a fish they could catch. In the water there were turtles, Golden Rays and also a few White-tipped Reef Sharks. The sharks were resting on the bottom and a bit difficult to see, but to my surprise you could see them better with sunglasses on.
Land Iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus) are endemic to the Galapagos Islands and they can be seen on several of the islands. For visitors it is easiest to see them on Isla Santa Cruz (at Cerro Dragon), on South Plaza and on North Seymour. I visited Cerro Dragon and South Plaza and saw several Land Iguanas at both places. The Land Iguanas on Isla Santa Fe are a separate species.
It is not known how the Land Iguanas came to the Galapagos Islands, but probably by floating with vegetation from the South American coast. It is believed that they arrived after the Marine Iguanas though, as the Marine Iguanas had to adapt to feeding in the sea and shore line, so when the Land Iguanas arrived there should have been more vegetation that they could survive on.
Land Iguanas have a yellowish-orange colour with a dark brown or grey back. During breeding season some males get a red colour to attract females. They have got spines on the back and head and they have a more pointed nose than the Marine Iguanas. Males will grow to a length of 1m and they can weigh up to 13kg. Females are smaller and have shorter spines. They are also less brightly coloured.
It is in the arid zones that you will find Land Iguanas. There they feed mainly on Opuntia Cactus, fallen pads (including the spines) and fruits. Most of the water they get from their food.
Males are very territorial, especially during the breeding season. The females lay the eggs in a nest under ground, where they are incubated for 45-50 days. The new born iguanas are very small and therefore preyed upon by the Galapagos Hawk, but also by introduced species. Introduced species are not only a threat to the Land Iguanas because they get eaten, but also because species likes goats eat most of the vegetation. If the Land Iguanas survive they can be as old as 50 years.
On the cruise with Cachalote we visited both South Plaza and Cerro Dragon on Isla Santa Cruz where we saw many Land Iguanas. These photos are from Cerro Dragon.
One of the highlights of Galapagos Islands is to see the amazing Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus). They are endemic to the islands and they are also the only lizards in the word that swim in the sea. The Marine Iguanas spend most of their time on land, but they feed on algae and seaweed. There are seven subspecies of Marine Iguanas in the archipelago and they can be found on all islands, often in the shore zone, on the lava rocks.
During millions of years the Marine Iguana has evolved to be well adapted to its environment. With a flattened snout and sharp teeth they can effectively feed on the algae on the rocks. Their tail helps them swim under water and with their long claws they can stand firmly on the rocks. Sometimes you can see the Marine Iguanas snort, that is when they get rid of excess sea salt with help from salt-eliminating glands in their nostrils. Most Marine Iguanas are black or dark grey in colour but on some islands the male can have a red or green colouring, a colouring that becomes brighter during the mating season.
Males become around 1m long, but some subspecies become longer and others shorter. The females are shorter than the males, and the spines along their back are not as large as on the male.
Females and young iguanas feed along the shore when it is low tide. It is mostly the males that feed in the sea and they can stay up to an hour under water. As the water is cold the iguanas must get warm when they come up on land, and then you can often see them basking in the sun with their face to the sun and their body raised from the ground (they must get warm, but not too warm so by raising the body they will allow the air to circulate under the body).
The Marine Iguanas are funny to see in the water. Twice when I snorkelled I saw them swimming. At Sullivan Bay I saw a Marin Iguana just as it took off from the bottom and swam up to the surface. As it reached the surface a sea lion got hold of the tail and played with it. Great for me to see, but I don’t think the iguana appreciated it that much. While snorkelling near Puerto Villamil I saw a whole group of iguanas swimming at the surface and just past me. It was wonderful.
The breeding season is from November - March. The females will then lay the eggs in an underground nest where they are incubated for three months. The baby iguanas are small and are therefore vulnerable to predators. They risk getting eaten by owls, hawks herons or mocking birds.
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. There are eleven different subspecies, but there have been at least 14.
Some tortoises can be very big, up to 150cm in length and with a weigh of 250kg, but it is not until they are around 40 years that they are fully grown. I didn’t see a tortoise of that size during my visit (many years ago though, on Prison Island, just off the Zanzibar coast, I saw a huge tortoise which I remember to be larger than the ones I saw on Galapagos Islands). It is not known how old the Galapagos Giant Tortoise can be, but many live till they are 150-160 years old.
The shape of the tortoise shell have evolved depending on the habitat where they live. There are two major types of shape to the shell, a saddleback shape or a dome shape, but there are also intermediate forms. The tortoises with a saddleback shaped shell are adopted to life in the more arid and hotter areas, where vegetation is sparse. They have longer necks and legs as they must be able to reach vegetation higher up. The dome shaped tortoises can be found in the highlands where there it is cooler and wetter and plenty of ground vegetation can be found.
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise reach sexual maturity at an age of 20-25 years. They mate throughout the year, but mostly during the warm and wet season. Usually the tortoises don’t travel long distances, but when it is time for the female to lay her eggs she will travel for many kilometres to reach more sandy and dry ground near the coast.
The tortoises are herbivores, which means they only eat plants, for example cactus pads, poison apple, guava and different grasses. They can live without drinking and eating for a very long time.
It is estimated that there were around 250 000 tortoises in the Galapagos Islands at the time the islands were discovered. The number soon declined as they were hunted for by sailors who took them aboard their ships. As the tortoises can live very long without food and water the sailors could get fresh meat during their long journeys. Another threat came from the introduced animals which dig up nestings, eat the hatchlings or compete for food. In the 1970s the number of tortoises were only around 3000. Luckily there are many ongoing conservation projects in the Galapagos Islands, many introduced animals are hunted and numbers are decreasing, and there are a few Tortoise breeding centres in the Galapagos Islands where tortoises are brought up until they are big enough to be placed in their natural habitat. There are now around 20 000 tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.
On the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, even before we went to the boat, we made a visit at a farm in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz. On the land around the farm Giant Tortoises can be seen and we went out looking for them. We only saw one, and it was a juvenile.
With around 15 000 inhabitants Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the Galapagos Islands, and it is also the tourism centre. There are many hotels in all categories here, but they are more expensive compared to the mainland. Especially along Avenida Charles Darwin you will find hotels, as well as restaurants and souvenir shops. There are also some ATMs and Internet cafés. In Puerto Ayora there are many travel agencies organising day tours to nearby islands or to sites on Isla Santa Cruz. Besides going on tours, or a cruise, there are several places of interest nearby that you can visit on your own, like Charles Darwin Reseach Station, Las Grietas and Tortuga Bay. You can also rent bikes and go surfing, kayaking or diving (and yes, there is a decompression camber in Puerto Ayora).
Puerto Ayora is situated on the south side of Isla Santa Cruz, at Academy Bay, a protected bay where you will find the harbour full of cruise boats and fishing boats. Walking near the sea you might see Brown Pelicans, Sea Lions, the colourful Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Marine Iguanas. Amazing to see in a town of Puerto Ayora’s size.
December - May is the warm and wet season in Puerto Ayora. It is often clear, but with rain showers, and the temperature is around 24 - 31°C. Between June - November it is colder, around 17 - 24°C, and the sky is often overcast, but there is little rain.
Puerto Ayora was founded by a small group of Norwegians who settled here in the 1920s. They established a fish cannery and they built a wharf in the bay. The town is named after an Ecuadorian president, Isidro Ayora.
I visited Puerto Ayora on the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote (before we had even been to the boat). We had a late lunch at a restaurant in town and visited Charles Darwin Research Station. After the cruise, before going back to the mainland, I stayed in Puerto Ayora for two nights and had time to visit Las Grietas and Tortuga Bay. If I had stayed longer I would have rented a bike to visit places further away from town.
Las Grietas is a long fissure in the lava rock. Here freshwater filtered down from the highlands meet salty water entering from the sea, making the water in the ravine brackish. It is a very nice place for swimming and snorkelling. The water is very clear, but can be a bit cold. Some people dive or make somersaults from the high cliffs. When you swim you can continue longer than you think, but you will have to walk over a few rooks and then you can continue the swim around the corner. I think it is a very beautiful place!
In the afternoon, I have heard, tour groups come here, so if you want tranquillity you should come early. It is easy to go here on your own from Puerto Ayora. Just take a water taxi ($0.60) from the pier over to Angemeyer Point and than follow the trail. After passing Finch Bay Hotel the trail becomes more rocky, so good shoes can be good to wear. Along the path there are several small lagoons were you might see migratory and coastal birds (for example I saw a Great Blue Heron here).
The first time I visited Las Grietas I hadn’t brought swimwear or snorkel equipment with me, so I came back the next day. I rented the snorkel equipment at Cabo Mar, near the harbour. It was $5 (July 2011) for the whole day and the equipment was good.